A “who’s who” of state and Dare County officials and a large crowd of community residents gathered on the northern tip of Hatteras Island on a warm and sunny Tuesday morning to welcome Gov. Pat McCrory and witness the official groundbreaking for the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge replacement.
The project to replace the aging span has been in the works for nearly 25 years — with the initial replacement project added to the state’s Transportation Improvement Program in 1989-1990. Over the years, making progress has been an upward climb through various proposals and a lawsuit that slowed progress to a near halt.
Two Hatteras Island residents who were instrumental in propelling the replacement forward – Natalie Kavanagh and Beth Midgett – were there to witness today’s celebration.
Midgett had been working for a new bridge for 10 years, first with Dare County’s Replace the Bridge Now Citizens Action Committee, and then as an essential part of the “Bridge Moms” movement.
“Without a doubt, this is a day that I thought we would not see,” she said. “And the only day better will be the ribbon cutting for the bridge opening.”
Kavanagh was a leader of the Bridge Moms – a local group that stemmed from a well-received speech she made in July of 2010 about how she feels when going across the aging and decrepit bridge with her child.
From that initial speech, a letter-writing campaign to the nation’s “First Mom,” Michelle Obama, began, with letters that were hand delivered by then Gov. Beverly Perdue. It was a successful voice, and the Bridge Moms were referenced a handful of times by several speakers during today’s celebration.
“This is 10 years’ worth of work here,” Kavanagh said. “I’m very happy to see this day, and very proud of the moms who wrote emails and letters, and signed petitions, and I’m proud of the Dare County government, which stepped in when no one else would.
“This is definitely a bridge for the people, because a lot of people had their hands on it,” she added.
In turn, the Dare County Board of Commissioners were equally grateful to the Hatteras Island community members who stepped up and created grassroots movements to have their voices heard.
“There’s so many people to thank for their persistence,” said County Commissioner Warren Judge. “And this is truly a great day. There are so many reasons for us to be joyful. This is the beginning, and this will be a lynchpin in a rejuvenated economic investment in Dare County. This bridge is going to start great things for us.”
“So many people deserve accolades,” said Allen Burrus, Hatteras Island’s County Commissioner. “The commissioners and the community members made this a priority, and there are hundreds of people to thank.”
The general sentiment of the county officials, the N.C. Department of Transportation staff and alumni, and, of course, the islanders who worked so long to finally break ground, was that today was simply a great day.
In addition to the folks who were directly involved in long process, the ground-breaking ceremony was also attended by a number of local and statewide news crews, including television news teams from Time Warner Cable, WAVY in Virginia Beach, and WRAL in Raleigh. Roughly 10 cameramen set up video cameras on a raised platform to capture the event, and crowds of chairs were stationed in front of a small stage which would serve as the focal point during the ceremony.
There was also a group of nine students from grades 9-12 of the Cape Hatteras Secondary School, who were student government members and Science Olympiad team members who completed a project on bridge construction.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., attended the ceremony, along with representatives from the National Park Service and Dare County Sherriff’s Office and many local business owners.
And, finally, Queen Elizabeth I herself, also known as Nancy Harvey, made an appearance, joined by Lance Culpepper, the producer of the “Lost Colony” outdoor drama.
It was quite the crowd, and quite the welcome for Gov. McCrory, who showed up at the site at 9:45 a.m. – 15 minutes before the ceremony began. He spent a few minutes shaking hands and saying ‘hello” or “thank you” to various attendees, including the local students who had second-row seats, and then went to the raised stage in front of the current bridge, along with the other four speakers.
The ceremony started with a welcome from N.C. Board of Transportation member Malcolm K. Fearing, who was an appropriate choice for the occasion. “You can tell by my accent that I’m from here,” he said “And I proudly represent Division 1 of NCDOT… and I’m proud to welcome you to an event that we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”
This statement was immediately met with a round of applause.
The welcome was followed by a prayer from Pastor Daniels of Wanchese – a prayer that was slightly interrupted when a plane carrying the banner “Oil Drilling is Bad for Business NOTTHEANSWERNC.ORG” started flying overhead – and then the large group was led in the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the National Anthem.
From there, it was time for the remarks, which stated with McCrory.
“I don’t need notes, because this is personal,” he began. He then chronicled how the bridge impacted the livelihood of local residents, and was instrumental for the statewide tourism industry. “Eighty percent of visitors that come to North Carolina come right here,” he said.
He also gave due credit to the folks in attendance who had been striving for a new bridge since the get-go.
“It wasn’t me who did this – it was you who made this happen,” he said. “The people of the Outer Banks made this happen.”
He also remarked on the length of the project and how long everyone had waited for the ground-breaking day to finally arrive. “I’ll tell you how long it’s been – We have Queen Elizabeth standing here!”
This was met with a big laugh from the crowd.
“The most resilient people in the world live here,” he continued. “I want to thank the chairman, the commissioners, and the people here who did not give up.”
The next speaker was Jones, who thanked his staff, and the local leadership who came to Washington, D.C., to “talk to us about the needs of this coastal county.”
“Today is the beginning of a solution,” he stated to nods of agreement.
The third speaker was Nicholas J. Tennyson, Secretary of the NCDOT.
Tennyson credited the governor for stepping up to get the bridge project and a number of other transportation projects done, without excess red tape.
“Were it not for Gov. McCrory, we would still be talking about a court case, and not a new bridge,” he said.
“The formula that the governor proposed takes the politics out of transportation, and allows us to address the immediate needs of the state,” Tennyson said.
He also outlined how the new bridge – which will feature high performance concrete, deeper pilings, and stainless reinforcing steel, (the first bridge in the state to use this material) — will last 100 years.
The final speaker of the morning was Robert Woodard, the chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners.
“As stated earlier, [the bridge] is a long time in the making,” he began. “Today, we honor those who had the courage to pursue the dream of replacing the Bonner Bridge.”
He also outlined how important the tourism industry was to Dare County, but also the state, noting that the tourism industry employs 12,000 people in the county – or about 1 in 3 people – and that North Carolina receives $47 million in state taxes from Dare County.
He closed by once again thanking the community that had been there from the beginning.
“The Hatteras Island community launched a powerful campaign that ignited a spark,” he said. “When the Bonner Bridge Moms wrote letters, it brought tears to your eyes.
“Without the people of Hatteras Island, today would not be possible,” he said.
After Woodard’s remarks, the party moved to the mound of sand and gold-plated shovels that were situated about 10 yards away, and the governor called out for the Queen herself to join the groundbreaking.
The first shovel of sand was dug by the governor, the other ceremony speakers, and NCDOT general counsel and deputy secretary Shelley Blake, and after the first round, other community members and instrumental government officials were invited to come up and have a turn at breaking ground.
This included the group from the Cape Hatteras School, who were all smiles as they posed for photos.
After the ceremony was over, news crews interviewed the governor before he left via a waiting car, and community members talked with reporters and each other about the event.
The overall consensus was that the brief one-hour ceremony, which was brightened by gorgeous weather, was indeed a cause for celebration. A momentous day, which that had seemed next to impossible a few years ago, had finally arrived.
WHAT HAPPENS FROM HERE
Construction officially started today, and the new bridge is expected to be complete and open to traffic by November 2018. The demolition of the existing bridge will then begin, and the entire project – from construction of the new bridge to getting rid of the old one – is expected to be completed by September 2019.
Daytime lane closures should be expected on Highway 12 on Mondays beginning at 7 a.m. through Fridays at 3 p.m. though June 13.
Daytime lane closures are not allowed June 14 through Sept. 14. However, nighttime lane closures will be allowed from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following morning.
One lane will remain open during closures. However, motorists should allow for extra travel time.
Short, nighttime road closures for up to 30 minutes for deliveries may be needed, and advance notice will be given in these situations. NCDOT is working with the U.S. Coast Guard and the local boating community to keep them informed of any construction activities and potential impacts to the navigation span at the existing bridge. Any impacts to navigation will be to ensure the safety of the boaters and will be for short periods of time.
Click here to listen to a recording of the groundbreaking ceremony.
Click here to view a slide show of the day’s events.